God as Difference in Communion

Pat Fox, 24 April 2009, Keynote Speaker



I. Three Stories from the Hebrew Scriptures

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

GENESIS 1:24–27
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind:
cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.”
And it was so.

God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle
of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind.
And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image,
according to our likeness; and let them have domination
over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle,
and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing
that creeps upon the earth.

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

GENESIS 18:1-8
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre,
as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.

He looked up and saw three men standing near him.
When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them,
and bowed down to the ground.
He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you,
do not pass by your servant.
Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet,
and rest yourselves under the tree.
Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves,
and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.
”So they said, “Do as you have said.”

And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said,
“Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour,
knead it, and make cakes.”
Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good,
and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.
Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared,
and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree
while they ate

EXODUS 3:1-7
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro,
the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness,
and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

There the angel of the LORD appeared to him
in a flame of fire out of a bush;
he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.
Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight,
and see why the bush is not burned up.”

When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see,
God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
And he said, “Here I am.”

Then he said, “Come no closer!
Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

”He said further, “I am the God of your father,
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people
who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their
taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,

So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people,
the Israelites; out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh,
and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you
that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt,
you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them,
‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’
and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.”
He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites,
‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”

God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites,
‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.


II. The Trinity : God as Three Persons, Persons in Communion

“In trinitarian theology,“
the ‘object’ upon which we reflect
is another ‘subject’ or ‘self’,
namely, the God who relentlessly pursues us
to become partners in communion.”

Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us, p. 332.

To communicate the full richness of the God revealed by Jesus, Christians needed to be able to formulate statements about God and God’s relationship with the world that were congruent with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and with the Christian communal experience of life in the Spirit.

An exploration of the origins of the concept of PERSON

Until the time of the Cappadocians – Basil, his brother Gregory of Nyssa and friend, Gregory of Nanzianzen — in the fourth century, there was no word that could bring out the full significance of the ‘other’ as an individual distinct person.There was no way of pointing out the importance and dignity of the individual human, let alone to the distinctiveness of God as three.

The development of the concept of person happened through the agency of the Greek Christian leaders who were thoroughly steeped in both:

  • the world view of the Bible
  • and in Greek philosophy.

Reflecting on the scriptures and on the collective, lived experience of their lives in Christ and the Spirit, they described the reality, integrity and significance of each person of the Trinity. In so doing, they maintained each one’s radical equality and unity in the communion of the one divine being.

Orthodox scholars point out that the concept of person was significant not only for trinitarian theology, but also for the development of an understanding of the human person.

It allowed the mystery of the ‘other’ to be affirmed.

Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas claims that: “the concept of person is humanity’s “most dear and precious good.” “Being a person implies the ‘openness of being’, i.e. a movement towards communion which leads to a transcendence of the boundaries of the ‘self’ and thus to freedom.”

Zizioulas observes that: “this patristic concept [of person] is completely congruent with a contemporary understanding of person as a relational category and stands in stark contrast with the individualistic tradition which until recently has been so central to Western theology since Boethius in the 5th Century.”

“Being a person is basically different from being an individual or ‘personality’”

There are two basic aspects of personhood:

  • Ecstatic: A person comes to be in relation, moving out of self to form communion.
  • Hypostatic: A person is a ‘free, unique unrepeatable entity’.

Both are inter-related

The call to personhood implies relationship, freedom, otherness

A call from an Other requires an initiator. (cf Moses’ call, Exodus 3)

Otherness in this case is always a gift, it visits us and calls us to be particular and unique.The human being is constantly formed through the response to this call of the Other.As long as there is freedom there is history: the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the call.

The person is an “I” that can exist only as long as it relates to a “thou” which affirms its existence and its otherness. If we isolate the “I” from the “thou” we lose not only its otherness but also its very being; it cannot be without the other. This is what distinguishes a person from an individual.

John D. Zizioulas, Communion & Otherness


Personhood is freedom

Personhood is the freedom of being other – to be oneself.

A person’s uniqueness is absolute and this freedom is for the other.

Freedom thus becomes identical with love. God is love because God is Trinity – persons in communion. We can love only if we allow the other to be truly other, and yet to be in communion with us.

“Beloved since God loved us so much… if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us.” 1 John 4: 11-12.

“A study of the doctrine of the Trinity reveals that otherness is constitutive of unity, and not consequent upon it. God is not first one and then three, but simultaneously One and Three.”

“Communion does not threaten otherness, rather, it generates it.”

“Fear of the other is pathologically inherent in our existence [and] results in the fear not only of the other but of allotherness…

We are afraid not simply of a certain other or others, but, even if we accept certain others,
we accept them on condition that they are somehow like ourselves.
Radical otherness is anathema. Difference itself is a threat.”

“The mystery of being a person lies in the fact that here otherness and communion are not in contradiction but coincide…

Communion does not lead to the dissolving of the diversity of beings into one vast ocean of being, but to the affirmation of otherness in and through love.”

Relationship is the basis of personhood, and the Trinity is a true source for understanding all relationship and the ‘other’ in relation.

Difference is the locus of the Spirit’s work and it is in a lived communion that the uniqueness and difference of each entity are found to be able to come to their full potential and creativity.

Since this notion of person is to be found only in God, human personhood is never satisfied with itself until it becomes animago Dei.

Human persons are called to exist in the way God exists. Living according to the image of God as a person in communion leads to theosis (becoming God).

To be a person is to be in relation. It is a way of being/relating which enables both diversity and unity to flourish.

III. Some Implications of “Attending to the Other”

Receiving the Other requires the capacity of creating spaces of liberty and dialogue where we can not only welcome the differences within each other and each other’s cultures and charisms but where we can also find ways to welcome the radical Otherness of God – attending to God as “Other.”

Incapacity to welcome the radical otherness of God seriously subverts the coming of God’s reign.Communities of the like-minded are weak signs of the kingdom.

Love of self… attending to the ‘other’ within

“If the self that we love is expanding into relation, expanding into maturity, recognizing its dependence and its limits, then what is in the interest of that self, is actually the same as the interest of the human community and the other. That is the extraordinary work of human liberation, or you might say, salvation.” Rowan Williams, ‘The Tablet’ 4 April, 2009

Love of neighbour… attending to the other

“This requires of us much more than mutual tolerance…It requires of us a mutual attentiveness that draws us beyond the narrow limits of our own sympathies and language.

Do I dare be touched by the imagination of the other, and enter into the land of their hopes and fears?

We have to embark upon a stretching open of our hearts and minds, what Thomas Aquinas calls a latitudo cordis, which draws us into the capacious home that is God.”

Timothy Radcliffe OP, 2005

Love of God – Attending to God as Other…

to receive the God who says to Moses and to all humankind, “I AM WHO I AM.”to relate to God as ‘God Three,’ and/or ‘God She.’
to make room for God who is personal but not imaged anthropomorphically – as either male or female.
to stay with the stretching questions about God that emerge at this time of new understandings of the creation of the cosmos and in ‘the face’ of all creation.
to search for God’s presence in the face of those who are starkly different from us in sensibility, values, culture…
To welcome the ‘other’ or the ‘stranger’ within our own selves

One God, Holy Trinity

God, Eternal Mystery, Source of Life,

Jesus, the crucified and the risen One sent into our world as absolute future and opens up for us a space of grace and love, a space wherein transformation can occur,Holy Spirit, infinite, unsurpassable future, who comes towards us, inviting our acceptance and response.


Totally Other: A space of grace and love…

Holy Mystery, Word and Spirit: an eternal stance of openness, of giving and receiving, spilling over into creation, inviting us into communion.Relationship, dialogue, communion.



Zizioulas, John D. Being As Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1985.

_____. Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. London: T&T Clark, 2006.

Fox, Patricia A., God as Communion: John Zizioulas, Elizabeth Johnson and the Retrieval of the Symbol of the Triune God. Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier The Liturgical Press, 2001.

Veling, Terry A. Practical Theology: On Earth as It Is in Heaven. New York: Orbis Books, 2005.

Murray, Paul D. (Ed.) Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

An Other Voice Text from power-point presentation given by Patricia Fox, 24 April 2009.